The relationship between passibility, agency and social interaction and its relevance for research and pedagogy

Susan A. Kirch, Jasmine Y. Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The interaction analysis presented by Kim and Roth examines nine students, their teachers, the learning task and materials in a mixed second and third grade science classroom during the school day. In the research narrative readers are introduced to two resourceful and creative groups of students as they work on a task assigned by their teacher—to cantilever a pizza box over the edge of a student desk. Readers are given glimpses (through images and transcripts) of the inventive ways each group solved the cantilever problem. Sometimes the children disregarded the design constraints, but even after compliance they managed to successfully solve the problem. The point of the learning task was not clearly stated, but readers are told the unit focused on investigating forces, forces in equilibrium, and structures as well as different forces (push, pull, etc.), properties of materials, and the relations between weight and balance while building structures. Kim and Roth were specifically interested in using this session to investigate and resolve the problem of learning as described by socio-cultural theorists as, how does a learner orient toward a learning outcome when they cannot do that until they have learned it? To answer this question Kim and Roth argued that learners (in engineering design) learn when and because: (1) they are open to be affected by the responses of materials to student action (i.e. student and material agency and physical touch) (2) their bodies are endowed with the capacity to be affected (i.e. passibility), and (3) knowledge and understanding emerge as and in social relations first. In their analysis, Kim and Roth argued that knowledge and knowing-how depend on these three universal processes. The authors further theorized the concept of passibility. Included in their theory of passibility was the claim that passibility is necessary for agency. After reading this paper we found we had many questions about Kim and Roth’s analysis, context, and assertions, but we decided to focus this forum response on the problem of the learner and the solutions posed by Kim and Roth as well as the proposed relationship between passibility and agency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1103-1113
Number of pages11
JournalCultural Studies of Science Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Activity theory
  • Agency
  • Passibility
  • Pedagogy
  • Problem of learner

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies


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